"Mind if I ride along with you guys?" an old friend and captain named Dave asked me the other day as we prepared to launch for San Antonio. "I'm heading down to Texas and the back is full. I'm hoping to get the jumpseat."
Dave grinned and handed me the usual licenses, jump seat passes and company ID to prove that he was him. I would have recognized him anywhere. I had flown engineer on the 727 with him and later was his copilot on the seven-two and the seven-six. I always enjoyed flying with Dave. He was a good stick, cool under pressure, and most importantly, he laid over well. We had some great Sarasota layovers that included the boat dock bar and multiple Jimmy Buffet sing-alongs and seafood dinners.
"Dave," I said, "you can sit anywhere you want. As a matter of fact, if you've missed flying these 'Long Beach Death Tubes' (the MD-88) you can aviate this thing down to Texas for me and I'll sit in the back."
"Naw," he said, "Never fly these light twins anymore. If it doesn't hold three hundred people and land at places where people think we're foreigners, I don't fly it. Where is the crew rest bedroom anyway?"
"Right there, buddy. You fold it down, put your feet on the foot pedals and try not to fall into the coat closet." Grinning, I asked him, "Are you familiar with all the oxygen masks, emergency egress and all that crap?"
"Well, let me think," Dave said. "I have six thousand hours in this thing and know that if something goes wrong that I should follow you because you will probably be the first person off the jet."
"Right you are," I said. Somebody has to lead the passengers to safety.
Frank, my copilot, wandered in and did a belly-squeeze to get past Dave and into his right-hand seat. I introduced them and told Frank that it looked like we'd be stuck with Dave all the way to SAT.
"Great, now I'll never get that USA Today crossword done!" Frank complained. He was, no doubt, concerned about sterile cockpit and the fact that an old, official-looking person was hanging around our jump seat. Usually, the last thing we want in our cramped MD-88 cockpit for almost three hours is somebody looking over and breathing down our necks.
Not to worry. Dave and I are cool and are totally down with you enriching your mind while we're in flight. Of course we don't expect you to actually finish the puzzle. I've never seen you complete one, but maybe today will be the exception. Dave isn't a line check guy or from the FAA and it's not your leg anyway.
The agent shoved the usual bushel of paper at me, yelled that the passenger count was good, plus one jump-seater and slammed the cabin door. Shortly after that we were "Southbound and down loaded up and truck'n." Dave stretched his legs around our center console, Frank frowned at his crossword puzzle and I gazed out of the windshield and planned what was sure to be the first of many deviations around thunderstorms.
"Boss," Frank said, "you must be getting really tired of working around all this crappy weather every week. Have you ever considered the benefits of early retirement?"
I have to give you credit. The old saying is true: "If a copilot isn't trying to sell the captain on early retirement, he isn't doing his or her job." In all honesty, Frank, I have to tell you that I seriously consider early retirement every single time I fly with you.
"That's good enough for me," Frank said.
We were approaching a dreadful-looking bit of thunderstorm overhang and even though we were going to miss it, it looked bumpy. Calling the back on the intercom I told Tom, our head flight attendant, that maybe they ought to sit down for a while.
Then I turned toward Dave and asked him if he had any retirement plans in his future.
"Next week, I'm taking my last flight in the good old 777 from London. My whole family is going along and we're going to have a party at the Clarion Inn after."
Next week? You can't be that old, Dave. If you're that old it can only mean that I'm getting older too, which is impossible. Are you going out early?
"Yeah, I'm leaving two years early. I've had enough fun."
Although I'd be wrong if I said I mind moving up another number, I'll miss you dude! How come you're checking out early?
"It's just not as much fun anymore as it was," said Dave. "Besides, with us furloughing so many guys it seemed to me like it was time to 'take one for the team' and leave. Maybe it'll save a job or two for guys that are trying to raise kids or are about to start their second or third marriage."
Retirement the "R word" is always a big issue with us highly paid trash haulers. Some people can't wait to leave the company, buy that camper and haunt national parks. Others can't accept the age sixty thing and spend their days suing the company and the country while running twenty miles a day to prove how healthy and strong they are.
The age sixty mandatory retirement is an issue near and dear to the hearts of airline jocks. On one hand, it is nice to think that we get to hang it up a full five years before your average ground-pounder. On the other hand, it is hard to accept the fact that society deems you to be "past it" and unable to yank the gear handle up.
Since our entire airline life is based on seniority, it is nice to know that there is a definite exit point for those super-senior pilots that have been a captain since the early 1970s. If large groups of pilots were allowed to fly until they dropped, junior pilots that thought they would make captain in just a few years would have to wait an extra decade to make the big money.
Some of the angry oldsters who are fighting retirement are really doing it for a good reason. At some airlines, with all the mergers and acquisitions, they wouldn't have any health insurance if they retired. Others are trying to stay because they really are on their third marriage and need the money to survive. The group we all hate to hang around with are the ones who think that a mandatory retirement age somehow reflects on their manhood or womanhood.
"If Reagan can be president in his seventies," the logic goes, "why can't I fly a jet in my sixties?"
Good logic, but a bad example. Still, I was interested in why Dave, a person who seemed to really enjoy his job and was at the pinnacle of his career, was leaving the party before the punch was spiked and the couples started pairing off and heading for the spare rooms.
"It's like an onion," Dave said. "When you are new in this job you know that there are lots of hassles, things like checkrides, rude passengers and moronic chief pilots, but you accept them because the job is so fun. Then, instead of once a year, they give you a checkride twice a year. Then, they want you to pee in a bottle to prove you aren't a druggie. Then, they search your shoes for explosives and want to pat down your unit at a checkpoint to prove you aren't going to hijack yourself. Every year they add one more layer of crap to the onion. I've finally had enough."
Everybody, especially ground-pounders, has hassles in their jobs, I said.
"True," Dave said, "but I don't have to keep putting up with it, so I won't. I always said I'd leave when doing this job stopped being fun and I'm being true to my word."
Dave picked up his coffee cup and took a sip (black, shaken, not stirred). "It's been a great ride and I've enjoyed at least ninety nine percent of this job. I've seen things most people never get to see, flown some really nice airplanes, bought dinner for some really interesting women and haven't managed to kill anybody or even run an airplane off a taxiway. Its just a job though and I've got other things to do besides trying to say awake at 3 a.m. over thirty west."
I had to agree with my friend. Maybe it is a function of getting older that the old days seem to be so much better then today, but there have been a lot of changes in the lifestyle in the past twenty or so years that I've been around.
When I started, captains were kings. What they said was the way it was done. Today, they still say that is true but if you do something "captain-like," such as telling the agent that you have to push back now, ten minutes early, because there are storms approaching, you aren't going anywhere. The company still backs you to a point as long as you do all the company procedures.
Twenty years ago, a captain made enough money to buy a brand-new pickup truck every month. Now, we seem to pay enough in federal taxes every thirty days to buy the government a Humvee. Back then, while layover love affairs were frowned upon, at least they were possible and you wouldn't die from them. In the old days you really had a usual "run" and could count on being at the same layover month after month if you wanted. In San Diego, for example, I had a bicycle of my own at the hotel because I knew I'd be there every Tuesday. Now, through the miracle of computers, you never had the same trip with the same crew twice in a row.
Captains and flight crews were respected. There were security check points back then but we just walked around them. Who would suspect us of trying to hijack ourselves? Drug tests didn't exist for us and we were expected to police ourselves when it came to dealing with a crew member that obviously "laid over too hard" the night before. We just told the hungover crew members that they were sick and were going back to the hotel.
It was unthinkable for a first or second officer to turn the captain in to the company for anything. We handled it "in-house" if we had to, through the union's professional standards committee. Now, if you don't inform on your captain, your job is in jeopardy.
It all seemed to work pretty well.
Of course, the flip side is true too. Lots of captains really needed turning in. There were some real characters who weren't the safest pilots around. A lot of people with alcohol problems didn't get help because we ignored them until they broke down. Things like windshear, decent anti- and de-icing procedures really didn't exist. We flew a lot more all-nighters and you could lose your medical back then for things we take for granted and can return to flying with now.
Taking medications for high blood pressure was disqualifying back then, so lots of pilots flew with high numbers leading to early cardiacs and strokes. If we were flying with terrible captains we just had to hunker down and take it. CRM didn't exist.
"I am going to miss some of the job," Dave said. "I doubt I'll see as many of my friends as I've been able to when I was flying for a living. Very few people who don't fly for a living understand what our lives are like. I'll miss Sarasota happy hours, the Lesbian Karaoke Nights at the pier in Brighton, England, and most of all, I'll miss having people make a fuss and treating me like I'm important."
"What are you going to do?" I asked. "Give up flying all together?"
"Nope, I'll keep flying my Cessna 180 that I have on floats. The difference now is that I'll get to fly when and where I want. I may even do some of that 'Angel Flight' stuff where you fly medical patients to and from treatment. I got plans that'll keep me busy until I'm 99. Don't worry about me."
We were approaching San Antonio and were flying over that big forested area east of town whose owner had literally carved his name out of the trees. Soon we'd be passing over Randolf Field. We'd land and I'd probably never see Dave again. That's the way it is. Your constant flying buddy one day is a ghost the next. That is the hardest thing about any retirement.
|With apologies to Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, and P.J. O'Rourke, who penned The CEO of the Sofa.|